I grew up in the era of the Battle of the Brians and Katerina Witt was queen of the ice. There was drama, rivalry and sparkles – what was not to love? I was totally hooked and ended up taking lessons that following summer (and never stopped). I was twelve when the “whack heard around the world” occurred. It was reality TV before it even existed. It was too good to be scripted. Seriously, an unsophisticated skater gets her ex-husband and bodyguard to try to break her rival’s leg. It’s pure evil genius. Naturally, everyone tuned in for the Olympics that year.
Through the ‘90’s figure skating was immensely popular. I even would argue that the Kerrigan-Harding saga helped, as did Baiul’s love of alcohol. Skating was always on TV. I know, as I had about a million VHS tapes from various televised events. The general public seemed to grasp the 6.0 judging system, perhaps they even admitted it was a tad biased and arbitrary, but it didn’t matter. The costumes were (mostly) elegant. The skating seemed effortless. And even with an uneducated eye, you could kind of understand the judges’ decision. Maybe you even argued with the German judge – why the hell did he give her a 5.7?! It was totally a 5.9, in my book! Perhaps, you couldn’t pick out a triple lutz from a triple toe loop, but who cared; it was a joy to watch. It was also during this time when Michelle Kwan rose to fame. She was poised, elegant and rock steady. She was always a gracious competitor and always a class act. I still believed she deserved to win the gold over Tara Lipinski. That’s just my opinion. I’ll be team Michelle until I die. I digress….
Then, in 2002, an unfortunate thing happened – an Olympic judging scandal. In that moment, the flaws of the judging system and the biased nature of the sport were exposed. In this particular instance, there was a behind-the-scenes vote exchange. The French judge was to give the Russian pair team first; in exchange, the Russian judge would give the French dance team first. As a lifelong skater, I could have told you how biased the sport was, but whatever, unfair judging and skating go together like head trauma and football, and doping and baseball. Sad, but oh so true. Anytime you have a sport that is determined by a panel of judges, there will be prejudices and preferences. It’s the unfortunate reality of the human condition.
A change needed to happen, and it did. Enter the IJS – or the International Judging System – an attempt to make the scoring system more objective, which in my opinion de-pizazzed the world of skating. How can you de-pizazz something with so much drama and bedazzlement? Easy – make the scoring so complex and the skating so mechanical and formulaic that the joy has been totally eradicated; there is no amount of sparkle, nude mesh or lycra that has been able to rescue it. Now, we are in a world where everything had a point value. In order to win, you had to rack up a helluvalota points, thus upping the technical ante. On top of that, the complex nature of the scoring made it hard for the general public to follow. Why would skater X with a flawless program lose to skater Y who fell? It all comes down to Code of Points and Grade of Execution. What the hell is that?!? Exactly…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a complete supporter of skaters pushing the technical envelope and they should be awarded points for doing things that are hard and impossible (Pamchenko, anyone); however, I believe that skating is at its best when it is the perfect melding of art and sport – that the best skaters are technically competent athletes with grace and musicality. I guess I am traditional about something after all.
Aside from skating, what other sport is athletic, yet graceful and beautifully over-the-top? Isn’t that why people watch? Surely football fans don’t watch because the players are known for their willowy ability to tackle each other. Same with hockey – you don’t watch because they elegantly get into fights. You watch because it’s pure grit and aggression. It’s totally physical, and that’s what makes it awesome. On the other hand, people watch skating because it is delicate yet deceptively tough– all wrapped up in a one lissome, athletic, bejeweled ball of perfection. It shouldn’t all be technical ability, and it also shouldn’t be all art and grace. It’s supposed to look easy, the technical elements should be wow-worthy, and it should be aesthetically pleasing. You don’t need a trained eye for that – you know what you like, and you know what looks hard (the judges, however, they DO need a trained eye). So, how do you judge that in the most unbiased way – awarding both the artistry and pure physicality of it all, AND do so in a way that the general public can understand?! That’s tricky.
With the Olympics around the corner, and the fact that there is a bit of a controversy over the selection of the US team, I’m hoping that skating will return once again to the popularity it once had, as I selfishly want to have a reason to watch skating all the time. Technically, I watch skating all the time anyway, but it’s all on the Internet, and it makes me feel like more of a skating loser than I already am.
In order for skating to get its mojo back, it needs something. Maybe it is in the form of a new star – someone that people love, someone with a great backstory. This may even happen in the Olympics (hopefully!). Or, maybe now that the IJS is ten years old people sort of understand it, and thus will be more inclined to watch. Personally, I have noticed that the overall skating quality seems to be higher than in previous years. That may be due in part to working out the kinks in the new judging system, or it happens to be just an awesome batch of talent, or the fact it’s an Olympic year. So, who knows what will happen and how. I just think that skating is a tad bland and it’s missing a key ingredient. It needs something other than various shades of chiffon to bring back the pizazz. Regardless, I’ll keep watching.